Scramble to keep Washington running

Scramble to keep Washington running

Lawmakers in the United States are racing against the clock to prevent another government shutdown - having once again left passage of a spending Bill until the last possible moment.

Stop-gap spending measures expire on Dec 11 and the famously polarised Congress has to reach a deal before then to avoid a repeat of last year's government closures.

In fact, with the politicking surrounding the mid-term elections and worsening gridlock having held up legislative work for months, Congress now needs to cram nearly a year's worth of Bills into slightly under two weeks.

Apart from the urgent spending Bill, lawmakers are also sitting on requests for additional funding for the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as resources to contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Then there are Bills to renew a whole host of expired and expiring measures: the authorisation for the administration to train and arm Syrian rebels that runs out on Dec 11; the government's terrorism risk insurance programme that expires at year's end; a critical defence authorisation Bill that needs to be passed every year; and a host of tax breaks for individuals and businesses that have expired and need to be refreshed this month if they are to be reflected on next year's tax returns.

The heavy backlog means any nascent hopes for a swift approval of trade negotiation authority seen as indispensable to the success of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement is all but extinguished.

It will now likely have to wait until new congressmen and senators are sworn in next year.

What makes matters worse is that almost nothing on the busy legislative agenda can be deemed straightforward, given the current political environment, least of all the spending Bill.

While Republican leaders have played down talk of a government shutdown as retaliation for President Barack Obama's unilateral executive action to grant amnesty to illegal over-stayers two weeks ago, it remains to be seen if they can contain the fringe elements of the party.

House Speaker John Boehner has reportedly warned party members not to pursue a shutdown. Moderate Republicans are backing a clean budget that will allow them to focus their next year on other issues and show that they can govern responsibly once they control both chambers of Congress.

Still, it is unlikely the party's hardliners will back such a measure and a compromise solution has already emerged.

Republican lawmakers are talking about splitting the budget into two, funding nearly all of the federal government until next September, except the Department of Homeland Security.

That department - which oversees immigration policy - would be funded only until March in a bid to overturn Mr Obama's executive actions, or at least voice their dissatisfaction with it.

As Republican Congressman Mick Mulvaney said to The New York Times: "Folks understand we won't fix it now, but they won't understand if we don't send a message to the President that we don't agree with what he did."

The GOP lawmakers are wary about the damage hostage-taking politics would do to their image. A recent CNN/ORC poll found that 50 per cent of Americans would blame the Republicans for another government shutdown, while only 33 per cent would blame the President.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 3, 2014.
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